Inside Politics: The "Gold Mine" of Idaho Education
INSIDE POLITICS

Inside Politics: The "Gold Mine" of Idaho Education

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At long last, Idaho’s education and jobs crisis are getting the attention they sorely deserve. These issues are gearing up to be the story of the year in 2020 in the same way Medicaid Expansion was the story of 2018-19. Lawmakers are finally understanding that Idaho’s prosperity problem – a generation-long issue that continues to drain jobs and opportunity from our state – needs to be addressed. It’s a subject that impacts families, communities and the state as a whole. The all-stars who could lead us out of this crisis are Idaho’s talented kids enrolled in Career-Technical Education classes (“CTE”) and their equally talented teachers.

Throughout the fall, I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the language being used to describe our kids who seek employment as electricians, construction workers, medical professionals, farmers and the like. In an interview earlier this year, a rural teacher in Southern Idaho described CTE training as a potential “gold mine” for Idaho families. A member of Idaho’s latest K-12 Task Force recently described kids enrolled in CTE classes as akin to “NBA Draft picks” because they were getting job offers before they even completed their course of study. When you consider the fact that last year, more than 6,300 STEM-related jobs went unfilled in Idaho to the tune of $412 million in unclaimed wages – money that should have gone into the pockets of Idahoans but didn’t – describing CTE students and their teachers in such positive terms is not hyperbole. This is especially true since many of those jobs can be filled by people with high school, certificate, or two-year degrees.

This positive language compares starkly to how CTE students have been characterized in the past, which is to say they have been soundly ignored by the politicians. Idaho is not alone in this. Kids enrolled in the “trades” have gotten little attention from the politicians all across the nation. State and federal officials talk a lot more about physicists than they do plumbers; mathematicians over mechanics; and engineers over electricians. If this strikes you as just a little bit insulting, it should. As the grandson of a tile-setter and the son of teachers, I for one take offense to the short-change Idaho’s CTE students and their instructors have gotten over the years in this state.

I am encouraged by the change in language and the seeming change in heart our state leaders are showing toward these Idaho students and their teachers for several reasons. First, we all know that college is not the right path for every kid. It’s expensive and requires study in subjects that have nothing to do with rebuilding an engine or converting a house from knob-and-tube wiring (rubber insulation) to modern wiring (plastic). Second, rural Idaho students can better use CTE skills to start their own businesses and attain family-supporting jobs in their home communities. Finally, as noted above, the students with strong CTE instruction could very well be the people who lead Idaho out of our job’s crisis, strengthen our communities and put our entire state on the path to prosperity.

It’s one thing to talk about CTE students and their dedicated teachers in such lofty terms as “NBA Draft picks,” but it is quite another to take action. Idaho’s elected leaders have shown a propensity for giving lip-service to our state’s education and jobs crisis for the better part of a generation. While I am encouraged by the rhetoric, I continue to question the state’s willingness to act on such a monumental issue. I certainly hope the 2020 legislative session proves me wrong. The stakes could not be higher.

At some point, it may fall to the citizens of Idaho to take matters into their own hands to address the education, jobs and prosperity crisis in our state. If it does, it’s important to know that a vote for education investment is a vote for every working man and woman in this state; a vote for every Idaho family that puts food on the table because of the work they do everyday to build our houses, grow our food or keep our trucks running. It’s about time those Idahoans and the talented people who teach them got their due.

They could be the people who save this state.

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Small news organizations in rural states aren’t often on the front line of broad public service journalism, but times are changing and one-or-two person shops can make a lot of difference in public awareness of issues if things come together.

A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

And there will be future outbreaks.

The fact remains that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still out there. It’s ready to strike again, and without a vaccine, it remains a potentially destructive and fatal disease.

Aggressive and quick testing remains one of the key elements — perhaps the most important element — of controlling outbreaks at this point.

Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.

RAPID-RESPONSE TESTING

That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.

NO COORIDINATED EFFORTS

No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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